Holdfasts – How Should You Be Using Them?

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When I started building workbenches,  I pushed my way of working on to my customers.

I wasn’t aware I was doing this.
But my cave’s a small place, and I forget there’s other people out there.

Every workbench went out complete with sliding board jack, large planing stop, a pair of bench dogs.
And a holdfast.

The same questions became asked repeatedly.
What do I do with this?
Or this?

Explaining how I use a few simple gizmos to hold my work. And how versatile this is, gets people thinking.

We’re so used to wanting more, and making things fancier. So simple solutions can be refreshing.

But we’re also programmed to want more still.
More simple things. Or better still, make the simple things more complex.

Once refreshed by the idea of holdfasts, it’s tempting to want to over do it.

But generally we’ll only need one. Two tops.

In terms of priority, I’d sooner have one holdfast, than the most fancy of tail vice. Though a holdfast is not as important to me as my planing stop. And that could just be a nail…

Using a holdfast while morticing

Holding work down for morticing (or in this case cutting bridle joints.) A single holdfast fixes the work in place, and gives you two free hands.

What Do Holdfasts Get Used For?

Morticing –
I love to have a holdfast about when I’m morticing.

You should never use the face vice for any chopping work (you waste energy when the wood isn’t supported underneath). So I plonk my work on the bench top.

Your work keeps itself still enough while you mortice, but then you need to prise out the waste, so you end up needing one hand to hold it down.
It’s nice to use a holdfast as an extra hand here, keeping the work held, without disruption.

Front Of The Workbench –
I also find myself keeping a holdfast in the front apron of my workbench.

I use it in the same way you would in a sliding board jack – to support the edge of wider boards when they’re held vertically in my face vice.Arguably the apron holes would have been used for pegs, but I find the holdfast more versatile.
Leave it hanging and it acts like a peg. Need an extra vice – whack it.

A holdfast in the front apron, or sliding board jack teams up with your face vice to steady wide boards.

A holdfast in the front apron, or sliding board jack teams up with your face vice to steady wide boards.

Perfect For The Obscure –
Beyond this, it’s generally just obscurities that my holdfasts come in for. They’re fantastic for solving your way out of a puzzling problem. Often this is about holding something later on in to a project, when it mustn’t get marked.
So the holdfast will be well out of the way, holding some sort of batten that cradles the work without harm.

Remember, in woodwork, any holding problem can be solved with a head scratch, a holdfast and a stray nail.

using-holdfasts-to-cradle-work


In this set up I needed to hold the dovetailed carcase firmly so that the inner faces could be planed. It’s an awkward shape and I needed a method that wouldn’t risk causing any damage to it. A notched batten is great for creating a cradle, and I use it to support the back corner, the batten’s held firmly by a holdfast. At the other side I created a second cradle using a bench dog and a pinch dog (a nail would do the job).
The carcase sits in tight, so it’s held firmly without coming to any harm. This is a quick set up, that can be made to suit any size of carcase.The advantage of this set up, is that it gives me full freedom to work without having the holdfast in my way.

Types Of Holdfasts –

Because of the way I incorporate holdfasts in to my work; as a third hand, I prefer the light weight ones.

In fact, the bent steel bar variants are probably the best thing to come to holdfasts since they were invented. Gramercy were the first to do this, that I’m aware of. And there’s other small makers creating similar ones.
These are cost effective, but the continuing rod of steel keeps them indestructibly strong yet flexible.
There’s no risk of breakage like with a cheap cast one.

My preference for light weight is due to speed.

So for the same reason, I don’t use the modern, threaded clamp like designs. They are good, and do hold well. But take too long to set up.

If you’re building a beautiful replica bench, then you might not feel content without an equally beautiful, large forged holdfast.
There seems to be a few blacksmiths that are making lovely examples now. Buy these if you desire the looks.
They won’t have any practical advantage, and I for one would sooner not have to lift one of the heavier ones too frequently.

How Do I Get A Super Grip?

You don’t really. Getting a super grip with a holdfast is somewhat irrelevant.

It either locks and holds, or it doesn’t.

If it locks, then even a light weight holdfast will be forceful enough for most woodworker’s needs.

Ultimately you’re at the laws of physics. A holdfast gives a single point of contact, so the work underneath will be able to pivot.
If you try to solve the pivot by hitting down harder, then you simply crush the wood.

To reduce the pivot you might want to increase the friction by adding suede or similar to the bottom of the holdfast.

For most uses, like the morticing, pivoting isn’t an issue. The holdfast’s only holding against an upwards force.

Where the work will come up against sideways force though, it’s better to add a stop or batten against the work, than try to hammer down more forcefully.

To me holdfasts aren’t about force. They’re about speed, and keeping both hands free.
Similar to why I avoid a tail vice.

All of the cost effective, bent rod type holdfasts that I’ve used can withstand the weight of my benches with a single light tap.

protecting-board-from-holdfast

Here I’ll be planing a deep bevel on to the edge of this board, across the length of the bench top. It’s getting towards the end of this project, so I’m wanting to keep the piece from any harm. The lovely itchy, autumnal jumper underneath is to protect the top face of the board, as it’s already been smoothed. The holdfast won’t stop the work swivelling on it’s own here, so I add a bench dog in front of the board to plane against.

Note: You can see these work holding methods in action throughout our Premium Video Series. Most of the photos in this post have been taken from the videos, and you’ll learn a lot more about work holding in both our Side Table and Spoon Rack projects.

Where Should I Put The Holes?

There’s no formula for locations.

It will depend heavily on how you use them in your work.

I general do my morticing about a foot or so back from the face vice, so I have a couple of holes around there that get used a lot.

Towards the back and rear of the bench is useful for holding battens.

If you already have round holes in your bench top for dogs, then they’re probably come in for the holdfasts as well.

If not, then I’d try starting out with just a couple of holes when you need them, then add more if you find yourself needing more.

Don’t over think it. I’ve been logging my holdfast hole usage for a little while now, and when I feel I’ve done it long enough I’ll show you my hot spots.

What Top Thickness Do I Need?

I have no difficulty using holdfasts in tops thinner than 3″.

In fact I use one all the time in the apron of my English bench, and that’s less than an inch thick.

It tends to be the thicker tops that cause a  problem. The holdfast needs to be able to twist in the hole to grip, and a thick top restricts the movement.
If you have difficulty, then you can increase the hole diameter slightly. Or, relieve the underside of the top around the hole, so the holdfast is less restricted.

Or even better, run a punch down the front and back of the holdfast’s shaft. This will help it grip.

What Workbench Top Material?

I use them in my pine bench, no problem. But as I’ve said, I’m not laying into them.

MDF? Hollow core door from a skip hunt?
Not likely.

You need strength in the material to resist the force pushing against it.

If you really want to make this work, you’ll have to cut out a section and fill it with solid wood.

But you may just be better creating a simple solid top. (have a look here if you want a real simple one).

Holdfasts are wonderfully simple.
For anyone looking to work with more pace and less haste, your holdfasts will see plenty of use.
And for when you need to hold something down to the bench top firmly, there’s nothing quicker. A holdfast is more preferable than a clamp.

Feeling squeamish at the thought of whacking down on your work? Have a read here at my thoughts on taking a more relaxed attitude towards your bench. 

22 Responses

  1. Ken Haygarth

    Great article Richard, I had never used them until I watched one of your videos. I now have two, and use the far more than I thought I would.

    I have the Simon James holdfasts, and like them a lot. Thanks again mate, great read.

    Merry Christmas to you and Helen, have a good one 😉

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Cheers Ken, the Simon James holdfasts are great, I’m pleased you’re getting on well with yours. They work very similar to the Tomes ones (which is what I’m using) but I must say Simon has really given his a lovely refined finish.

      Merry Christmas to your good self too! (Which you’ve unfortunately just reminded me has already come round!)

      Reply
  2. John Thomas

    I have not built a copy of your workbench yet.
    I use Gramercy hold fasts on my current bench, with no problems.
    The bench top is a solid core door ~ 1 1/2 ” thick.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Hi John,
      Its surprising how thin you can get away with really – I know that Gramercy suggest a minimum of 1 3/4″, but like you I’ve found them to work perfectly in much less.

      Reply
  3. Jerry Consie

    The Gramercy holdfasts did not work well in my 5″ thick bench until following your suggestion to run a punch down the front and back. No issues now, they hold great. Once again a simple elegant solution is the best. Thank you Richard!

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Brilliant! I’m pleased you found that punch trick to work. Roughing up with sand paper is popular, but I find you need a little more when it comes to a real hefty top. A punch is a little crude I suppose, but if it works.

      Reply
  4. Garth Schafer

    I am glad to see you received the bench dogs I sent you, good to know they did not get lost in the mail. If you have time it would be great to know what you think of them.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Well spotted! Thanks for sending these through.
      I don’t use bench dogs a huge amount, with me having a nice big planing spike and no tail vice, but I’ve been using one of yours throughout my builds in the odd situation like above.
      Previous to this I’ve aways used brass dogs, but I’ve enjoyed the simplicity of this wooden one and the ease of getting it in and out. I’ll be sending you any other thoughts once I’ve given it sufficient use, but so far – very impressed. One thing I can say, is I don’t even know where my brass dogs are any more!
      For anyone wondering this is the little wooden dog used to support the board that’s on top of the itchy jumper – https://timewarptoolworks.com/woodenbenchdogs/

      Reply
  5. John

    Holdfasts are up there with scraper blades. So simple but so effective. You can’t beat the satisfying thwack on a holdfast to quickly keep the job going.

    Reply
    • Richard Maguire

      Just the way I like most things really. Simple and heavy handed!
      There’s nothing more unsatisfiying, than that wrist twisting action of a clamp.

      Reply
  6. Karl Newman

    i use them in a workbench top that is 3 layers of 3/4″ cabinet grade particle board. wok just fine… I built the bench to be temporary 30 years ago…… still using it.

    Reply
  7. EspenL

    Thanks for a great article Richard.

    I tried to find Gramercy holdfasts from a source in Europe, but could not find any. Does anyone know if they can be bought in the UK? I travel there regularly, and $60 shipping to Norway from US is not very tempting.

    Reply
    • Jeffrey Murray

      Another option would be to find a local blacksmith to make a pair for you. Sometimes they are a little pricey, but I had a pair made by a blacksmith at a historical reenactment event for $20 apiece here in the states.

      Reply
    • Peter Maddock

      Hi Mate,

      Pete Maddock here,

      I found my Gramercy Holdfasts from a web site in Germany but they do have an English set of web pages and will ship then out to you, where you are.

      The company is called the “Dieter Schmit Tool Shop”, and you can fined them at https://www.fine-tools.com and the web page you’ll need is, https://www.fine-tools.com/holdfast.html if you go there you will get what you are looking for.

      Regards,
      Pete Maddock

      Reply
  8. Ray Lewis

    One of the very best articles on hold fast. Many thanks and Merry Christmas from Independence, Oregon

    Reply
  9. Leslie Clement

    Hi Richard,

    What type of punch did you use to score your holdfasts? I bought a nail set (which is all I could find at a big box store) but the metal was too soft and didn’t score the holdfast at all. Do I need to use a nail punch instead of a nail set? FYI I have 2 Gramercy holdfasts.

    Reply
  10. Peter Maddock

    Hi Richard

    Yes, I Have two of these Gramercy Holdfasts on my bench in the shed here at home, and I would be lost with-out them. They are brilliant things to have for work holding.

    Regards,
    Pete Maddock

    Reply
  11. Mark Day

    Hi Richard,
    I have 1″ dog holes in my workbench and wondered if you knew where I could find a 1″ holdfast in the U.K.?
    I know Crucible make these but don’t ship internationally.
    Many thanks
    Mark

    Reply
  12. Martin

    Regarding the itchy jumper I use an anti slip mat from the £1 shop. Advertised to stop things sliding around in the boot of your car it grips really well when you increase downward force. I use it with a speed clamp but will definitely try it with a holdfast. Cheers Richard.

    Reply
  13. Tone

    32mm of plywood is thick enough for a holdfast to work fine. That is what I use, my bench-top is made from 2-halves of a sheet of 16mm ply. I wondered if I might need to add a 3rd sheet (for 48mm thick bench top) for using holdfasts and/or for mass to hold the bench steady but it was unnecessary on both counts.

    Reply

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